Centuries before the Islamic Republic or even Islam, Persian athletes fused spirituality and strength training in a practice called Varzesh-e-Bastani, the legacy of which may still persist.
Iran's Behdad Salimikordasiabi lifts 500-plus pounds over his head, winning an Olympic gold medal and a world record. (AP)
Freestyle wrestling is often described as the "first sport" of the Islamic Republic of Iran, according to U.S.-based Iranian historian Houchang Chehabi. Iran excels at international wrestling competitions, winning three gold medals at this year's Olympics alone, and an astounding 35 medals since 1948. But the story of how Iran came to so dominate wrestling is older than the Islamic Republic, possibly older than even Islam itself, and may have to do with an Iranian understanding of the sport far different than the West's.
That story may also have to do with Iran's record at weightlifting and, to a lesser extent, tae kwon do. Iranian weighlifters won the men's super-heavyweight gold and silver this year, the former to the amazing Behdad Salimikordasiabi for lifting 545 pounds, more than a baby grand piano, over his head. He broke his own world record, which he'd set the year before in Paris, when he broke the previous record, also held by an Iranian. Though Iranians don't win as many Olympic medals in tae kwon do, both men and women are perennial winners at other international and Asian leagues. Iran's record in these three sports is even more striking compared to its abysmal Olympic record in everything else; in Olympics history, the country has only one medal from any other sport: a silver in discus throwing, won this Tuesday.
The surprisingly rich academic literature on Iran's impressive records at wrestling, weightlifting, and tae kwon do consistentlyconnects all three to an ancient Persian sport called Varzesh-e-Bastani, which literally translates to "ancient sport." To Westerners, Varzesh-e-Bastani might look like an odd combination of wrestling, strength training, and meditation. Though there's no known link between Varesh-e-Bastani and yoga, it might help to think of it as something like a Persian version of this athletic practice that's also a method of personal and community development -- and a symbol of cultural heritage.
Though Western cultures typically treat wrestling as an aggressive, individualistic, and deeply competitive sport, traditional Persian Varzesh-e-Bastani emphasizes it as a means of promoting inner strength through outer strength in a process meant to cultivate what we might call chivalry. The ideal practitioner is meant to embody such moral traits as kindness and humility and to defend the community against sinfulness and external threats. The connection of weightlifting with character development might sound odd, but it's perhaps not so different from, for example, the yogic practice of Shavanasa, a meditative pose meant to bolster the spiritual and mental role of yoga's stretches and poses.
Varzesh-e-Bastani is traditionally practiced in a building called a Zoorkhaneh, which means "home of strength" and is often built and decorated in an ancient style that's led archaeologists to trace them to the Mithraic era of the first through fourth centuries, AD. The Mithraic religion, named for the Persian god Mithra, spread through much of the Roman Empire before being displaced by Christianity -- and, much later, displaced by Islam in Persia itself. But some Mithraic ideas and practices persisted in the Zoorkhaneh, and can maybe still be heard in the pre-exercise chanting or seen in the ritual movements.
History is political in Iran, and has been for centuries. Its leaders have alternatively embraced or downplayed the country's ancient, pre-Islamic roots. After the Arab Muslim invasion, Persian elites resisted the new religion for centuries, seeing it as the Arabs' religion. In the 1500s, though followers of Islam's two major schools of Shi'ism and Sunnism had long been dispersed across the Middle East, Persia's imperial Safavid rulers played up Iran's Shi'a heritage as a way to unifying Arab Shi'a against the increasingly Sunni Ottoman Empire. The following migrations of Shi'a to Iran and present-day Iraq helped create a geographic division that largely holds to this day. The shahs of the Pahlavi dynasty, which took over in 1925, tried to bring Iran into the developed world in part by emphasizing its ancient Persian roots as an alternative to the Islamic identity that, as he saw it, tied it to the less developed nations of the Middle East and Central Asia. The Islamist revolutionaries of 1979 veered back in the other direction. In 2009, moderate presidential candidate (and, shortly after that, informal "green movement" leader) Mir Hossein Mousavi peppered his campaign posters with images of pre-Islamic cultural sites, a subtle nod to the days before the Islamic Republic.
Through these turbulent back-and-forths, leaders and popular movements alike have pushed away one aspect of Persian cultural heritage in order to lift up another, re-re-inventing their society so many times over that few institutions have survived intact. Even the Supreme Leader's Islam does not always look so much like the Shi'ism of earlier generations.
Yet, somehow, the Varzesh-e-Bastani traditions and the Zoorkhaneh have survived, embraced during both the shah's secular Westernizing era and under the Islamic Republic as a symbol of Persian national pride and of cultural roots. Both regimes, though they couldn't be more different, promoted the Zoorkhaneh and entrenched its practices into national physical education, even reminding Iranians that the sport's champions had once defended their communities against the Mongol invaders of a thousand years earlier. The Islamic Republic lionized the Varzesh-e-Bastani wrestler Gholamreza Takhti, elevating him to what one historian calls "the greatest Iranian sports legend of the twentieth century," perhaps in part because he could appeal to both Islamists and more secular skeptics, a unifying figure in a country that badly needed one.
Iranian nationalism and national pride -- of a kind that seems possibly even broader than that of the supreme leader's Islamist nationalism -- has become tightly wound with international wrestling and weightlifting competitions, the two sports most closely associated with Varzesh-e-Bastani. In 1989, just after the end of the devastating eight-year war against Iraq, Iranian heavyweight wrestler Ali-Reza Soleimani defeated an American wrestler for the world wrestling championship that year, exciting Iranians who badly needed something to feel good about, and striking a symbolic (for them) blow against the U.S., which had aided the Iraqis in the war. State funding for wrestling immediately increased, and the Islamic Republic played up its ancient Persian roots to try and cash in on the popularity.
In the late 1990s, reformists who followed new President Mohammad Khatami into power hinted that wrestling could be a path to detente with the U.S., a sort of Persian take on China's Nixon-era ping pong diplomacy. It never happened, but wrestling and weightlifting have remained so popular in Iran, and so closely linked to national pride, that Iranian research universities still produce studies on, for example, the effects of Ramadan fasting on weightlifting performance or the personality traits of weightlifters and martial artists versus players of team sports. Though the nation's Greco-Roman wrestling team performed the best of any country in this year's Olympics, Iranian social media users are apparently fuming over one wrestler's loss to a French opponent, insisting that Olympic referees had conspired against him (no, there's no evidence).
It's difficult, and maybe ultimately impossible, to say for sure why one country might do particularly well (or particularly poorly) in one athletic competition or another. And it's especially difficult to test the theory that Iranians are so good as weightlifting and wrestling (and, to a lesser extent, tae kwon do) because of those sports' roots in the pre-Islamic Varzesh-e-Bastani tradition, one of the few ancient cultural legacies that has been allowed to persist through the past century of near-endless political turmoil. After all, gold medals in these events are won by a tiny handful of individuals. Still, if even just these dozen or so Iranian athletes believed that their amazing skill was rooted in this particularly Persian heritage, then wouldn't that in itself make it at least somewhat true?
More on the F-16 and Cessna crash, and whether the collision of a military and a civilian aircraft was also a collision of cultures
Early this month an Air Force F-16, under the command of an experienced Air Force pilot, rammed into a small-civilian Cessna 150 propeller plane, not far from Charleston, South Carolina. The Air Force pilot ejected to safety; both people aboard the Cessna were killed.
The next three paragraphs are background for the pointed and interesting reader-messages I am about to quote. If you’re already up to speed with previous installments (one, two, three), you can skip ahead to the messages. They highlight an aspect of the modern military-civilian divide I had not considered before this episode.
In an original item on the crash, I noted some of the perils civilians could face when flying near designated military areas—even though this crash happened in ordinary uncontrolled airspace. That is, it occurred when neither plane was within a Military Operations Area (MOA), where civilian pilots are warned about risks from high-speed military aircraft, nor inside the controlled “Class C” airspace that surrounds Charleston’s airport. (Medium-sized commercial airports like Charleston’s typically are ringed by Class C airspace, so the controllers can sequence in the airline, cargo, civilian, military, and other traffic headed toward their runways. The very busiest airports, like LAX or JFK, are surrounded by larger zones of Class B airspace for their more complex traffic-control jobs. In case you’re wondering, Class A airspace is the realm above 18,000 feet where most jet travel occurs.)
A newly discovered artifact buried with one of Jamestown’s most prominent leaders suggests he could have been a crypto-Catholic.
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
The paper of record’s inaccurate reporting on a nonexistent criminal investigation was a failure that should entail more serious consequences.
I have read The New York Times since I was a teenager as the newspaper to be trusted, the paper of record, the definitive account. But the huge embarrassment over the story claiming a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton for her emails—leading the webpage, prominent on the front page, before being corrected in the usual, cringeworthy fashion of journalists who stonewall any alleged errors and then downplay the real ones—is a direct challenge to its fundamental credibility. And the paper’s response since the initial huge error was uncovered has not been adequate or acceptable.
This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Or perhaps Twain never said it, in which case the ubiquity of that attribution serves to validate the point.) And a distorted and inaccurate story about a prominent political figure running for president is especially damaging and unconscionable.
The new version of Apple’s signature media software is a mess. What are people with large MP3 libraries to do?
When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
Kemp’s system has since been augmented and improved upon, but never replaced. Which makes sense: Like the web itself, his schema was shipped, good enough,and an improvement on the vacuum which preceded it. Those three big tags, as they’re called, work well with pop and rock written between 1960 and 1995. This didn’t prevent rampant mislabeling in the early days of the web, though, as anyone who remembers Napster can tell you. His system stumbles even more, though, when it needs to capture hip hop’s tradition of guest MCs or jazz’s vibrant culture of studio musicianship.
Orr: “Sometimes a thing happens. Splits your life. There’s a before and after. I got like five of them at this point.”
This was Frank offering a pep talk to the son of his murdered former henchman Stan in tonight’s episode. (More on this in a moment.) But it’s also a line that captures this season of True Detective so perfectly that it almost seems like a form of subliminal self-critique.
Remember when Ray got shot in episode two and appeared to be dead but came back with a renewed sense of purpose and stopped drinking. No? That’s okay. Neither does the show: It was essentially forgotten after the subsequent episode. Remember when half a dozen (or more) Vinci cops were killed in a bloody shootout along with dozen(s?) of civilians? No? Fine: True Detective’s left that behind, too. Unless I missed it, there was not a single mention of this nationally historic bloodbath tonight.
Has the Obama administration’s pursuit of new beginnings blinded it to enduring enmities?
“The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” In this way Ben Rhodes of the White House, who over the years has broken new ground in the grandiosity of presidential apologetics, described the courage of Barack Obama in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise known as the Iran deal. Once again Rhodes has, perhaps inadvertently, exposed the president’s premises more clearly than the president likes to do. The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.
The agreement doesn’t guarantee that Tehran will never produce nuclear weapons—because no agreement could do so.
A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.
On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.
U.S. officials are turning to Russia for help with Iran and Syria, even as the Ukrainian conflict persists.
If you believe all the talk out there lately, Vladimir Putin is not only duplicitous and hypocritical—the Russian president’s also been pretty damn busy recently. Busy cutting secret deals with the same Europeans and Americans he has been vilifying for years. And if you believe the rumors, the Europeans and Americans have also been busy selling out Ukraine to the Russians.
Not that any of this would be unusual or particularly surprising. Cynicism, duplicity, and hypocrisy are often the reserve currencies of politics, where interests tend to trump values.
There have long been suspicions that the United States and Europe might give Ukraine up in exchange for Russia’s support in securing a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Washington has been seeking Moscow’s backing in securing a managed, orderly, and negotiated exit for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, which would go a long way toward ending the conflict in that country.
Even with the overwhelming recent New York cover story, the women pay a price for speaking out.
Who still defends Bill Cosby? After newly unsealed depositions revealed that the comedian admitted to acquiring sedatives to give to women he wanted to have sex with, his longstanding backer Whoopi Goldberg recanted her support for the man accused of dozens of rapes over the years. The singer Jill Scott, too, said she was wrong when she suspected a media conspiracy against him. And if Cosby’s former costars, including Phylicia Rashad, still believe him to be the target of an illegitimate smear campaign, they haven’t spoken up to say so in a while. Cosby’s lawyer is currently making the rounds in the media to say his deposition has been misconstrued—but that argument, even if believed, doesn’t refute the idea that he used drugs to take advantage of women.